Wine Pros(e) and Cons

There is probably more writing about wine available to consumers now than ever before. That is due, of course, to the great democracy of the internet and its multiple channels for conveying opinions and information: blogs, social media, tweets, comments, consumer evaluation forums, and so on. The problem is, who checks the accuracy of the information? How do you judge the value of Person X’s opinion? The great democracy of the internet really culminates in a grand indeterminacy, in which – all too often – the more you can find written about a subject, the less you confidently know about it.

Just a few examples:

blog collage

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The blogosphere is enormously heterogeneous. It contains many serious wine writers who post useful information that could otherwise not easily be dug out – about, for instance, wineries in the American Midwest, unusual grape varieties, distribution patterns and consumption patterns – but it also hosts naïve enthusiasts and egoists who present their momentary reactions and crackpot theories as eternal truths. Nobody fact-checks the internet the way editors – a dying breed – used to check articles submitted for publication, and no one verifies authors’ credibility. I know this sounds like an old geezer’s lament, but it is true: Nowadays, having an opinion is sufficient warrant to publish it.

Well, I taught English literature to undergrads and graduate students for several decades, and I can assure you of one great undemocratic truth: Not all opinions are equal. Your opinion is only as good as the data you can gather to support it and the intelligence and insight you can bring to understanding both the subject and the data. Beyond that, there are valid and invalid ways of using both, and knowing which is which takes experience: You have to learn it over time, and exercise it until you’re comfortable with it. Think of good judgment – or a good palate, if you prefer – as a muscle that can be developed by use and atrophied by idleness. So – speaking again as one who’s been doing this for a long while – writing about wine should involve a lot more than simply voicing your likes and dislikes as if they were fundamental truths.

I can understand why many people might not think so. Lots of terms that wine writers use generate confusion in readers. It’s hard, after all, to find objective language for what are largely subjective reactions. Moreover, since drinking wine is a greatly pleasurable activity, it’s understandable why many consumers assume that learning about it and writing about it must be equally subjective and enjoyable. While nobody in his/her right mind would undertake wine writing – or winemaking, for that matter – without a passion for it, the nasty little secret of professional wine tasting and writing is that they are rarely fun: They are work – hard, plodding work.

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hard plodding work

Is this the fun part?

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The civilian world – wine consumers – by and large think of tastings as enjoyable occasions, where they’ll sample six or eight wines, usually with some food, often with a full dinner, and with a professional – perhaps the winemaker – leading them through the tasting, essentially telling them what they’re experiencing and how excellent it is. There are various degrees of intensity and seriousness to these events, but they are rarely analytic or evaluative exercises. Essentially, their purpose is publicity or sales.

That may be a bit harsh. Some commentators at such events do try to convey real information – but I’ve got to say, at the risk of offending some of my colleagues, that most presenters at tastings designed for consumers try much harder to entertain than to inform. It’s not a choice I can fully respect: I think it sells at least some of the paying customers short and underestimates their intelligence and seriousness. (Perhaps I’m being naïve; perhaps the entertainers are right. If so, so much the worse – for me, I guess.)

Obviously, many consumers are quite content to enjoy wines without needing to know all about them – and who can fault that?  Many, many wine blog posts – the kind I think of as “What I Drank with Dinner Last Night” (a type I have been guilty of myself ) – deal almost exclusively with enjoyment, not analysis – and, unless they’re offered as analysis or eternal verity, who can fault that?

Nevertheless, there remains a gulf between the writing that results from serious wine tasting and the writing of even the most acute uninformed opinions. An occurrence a few years ago at Nebbiolo Prima (the annual week-long, for-professionals-only tasting of newly released Barolo and Barbaresco in Alba) summed that up for me.

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many bottles

Yes, you have to taste them all

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The organizers of the event, in a laudable attempt to “get with it,” had not invited many of the print journalists who had been their customary clientele and instead had asked a large number of bloggers to attend. So at the start of the week, bloggers of every stripe and several languages were present in force in Alba.

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tasting room

At work in the lab

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On the first day of the event, every place in the three tasting rooms was filled, and the tastings began in silence, just as austerely and rigorously as ever, with somewhere between 65 and 80 young Nebbiolo wines to be gotten through before lunch.

The next morning, there were conspicuous empty spaces. By the third morning, the tasting rooms were half empty. I don’t think a single blogger made it to the end of the week. Who can fault that?  There’s no question that it was brutally hard work, both physically and intellectually: Staying focused through repeated flights of young, tannic wines day after day requires real effort, and not everybody is capable of it. More than one winemaker I visited that week said “I couldn’t do what you do” – meaning not me personally but the whole cadre of tasters.

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tom tasting

Focus, focus, focus!

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But the point is that those who abandoned the tastings after a day or two thereby lost the whole point of the event: gaining knowledge of the character and quality of a whole vintage for an entire major wine zone. That’s knowledge and experience that can never be made up in any other way, and no amount of enthusiasm or personal certainty can equal it. How many of those disappearing bloggers, I wonder, went on to write “authoritatively” about that Barolo vintage?

In a later post, I may return to the differences between professional tastings and consumer tastings, because I think it’s an important topic and an all-too-often misunderstood one.

5 Responses to “Wine Pros(e) and Cons”

  1. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Tom:

    Thanks for yet another sensible article on what it means to write critically about wine. The points you make here are precisely why I do not blog about wine. Which is not to say I did not love writing about wine. Many years ago, I thought it possible I would become a writer on wine, and did indeed experience a very protracted false start. My early claims to fame included a very ambitious and critical review of Long Island (NY) wines (‘Bacchus Smiles on the East End’)
    and a report of the release 1976 Krug Champagnes (whick took me to the Carlyle Hotel, where Remy Krug was staying in anticipation of an event that would announce the release of his wines at the Cooper Hewitt Museum). Both of these pieces appeared in the now defunct Long Island Heritage Magazine in 1983. Alas I was just too young and inexperienced in the wine kingdom (when the door to Krug’s suite opened I immediately introduced myself with a handshake thinking I was meeting Krug himself: who in their right mind thinks a Frenchmen would ever open his own hotel door?). It was, in retrospect, all precipice from there. After a brief flirtation with my own modest publication, WineTattler, I yielded to what it meant to be a serious wine writer and to those who were atually doing it. It’s just too much hard work to sustain the necessary level of expertise; the capacity and intensity of the commitment is mind-boggling. Too many wines, too much geography, too many events to cover to approach the task (La Tache?).

    So now I’m happy to chat about wine, pretty much the kind of thing I’m doing right now on your blog, and what I occasionally do to torture some guests in my home, many of whom I’m able to get to the 30 second mark before the eye-rolling begins (I have to find some new friends).

    And now for that La Tache…I think not…

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Indeed, I too have caused many an eyeball to roll, and some have even rolled back into their heads, but I have very forgiving friends. Thanks for the fascinating comment, especially the biography.

  2. Patrick Vernenstrom (@PatrickVernen) Says:

    Words of wisdom on wine writers credibility. Well done!

  3. Jonathan Levine Says:

    Great piece.

  4. Jane Kettlewell Says:

    Really enjoyed your article today. Something that Kate and I here at Creative Palate – and presumably other wine PR observe – is that wine bloggers, knowledgeable and neophyte alike, come and go. What starts out as a passion, over time becomes a chore, especially when it’s unpaid. Certainly, some of the more knowledgeable wine bloggers are rewarded with samples and press trips, but it soon becomes apparent that blogging can be, as you point out, hard work and by no means all fun. As a result, after time, a good number of wine bloggers simply give up. Some find the obligation to write regularly and conduct the research that goes with it more work than they could ever have bargained for, and resort to Twitter instead ;( while others find that the pressures involved start to suck the joy out of their passion. And here and there we have a few who are recruited to work as in-house PR and understandably have to abandon their blog in favor of a monetary reward for their work. Richard Jennings of the Huffington Post was a wine blogger whose work we enjoyed. Last year, he abandoned his blog. His final post puts it rather well: http://www.rjonwine.com/

    Richard’s comments on press trips particularly struck a chord. In theory, press trips sound wonderful; in practice, as you point out, these trips are hard work.

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